Play Journal #4

This week’s readings focus on what seems to be an ongoing debate in the field of video game studies more generally: is a game a story that can be explored using theories of narrative, or is it a unique medium of its own? We’ll begin by breaking down both sides of the debate, and then pursue bizarre tangents into Jenkins’s ideas of narrative architecture in the context of my games for this week, Borderlands 3 and Pokémon Go.

Courtesy of  Wired   via Engadget.

Courtesy of Wired via Engadget.

The field of videogame studies seems to be divided rather starkly between ludology (‘video games are distinct’) and narratology (‘video games are types of narrative.’) Frasca defines ludology as “a discipline that studies games in general, and video games in particular,” with a ludologist being “someone who is against the common assumptipn that video games should be viewed as extensions of narrative” (222). Frasca goes on to clarify that this scorched earth division is flawed, but other pieces focus we read reinforce what seems to be the frustration in videogame studies: old theories simply do not function for this new medium. Whether this is Eskellien’s humorous anecdote about a misinformed scholar waiting for a thrown ball to tell stories (n.p.), Frasca’s own division between games as simulation and narratives as representation (222-225), or Juul’s note that he has previously (though, he does admit simplistically) assumed “rules” (games) and “fiction” (narrative) are simply incompatible based on how the two forms operate (177), it is clear that simply stapling film theory to a AAA console game is simply unproductive, and at worst overly simplistic.

The piece with the most potential to engage with my gameplay this week is a stated attempt to find the middle ground. Jenkins begins his fascinating piece by first noting that traditional narrative theory applied to games “can seem heavy-handed and literal-minded,” but also that “one gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games at only at one’s own risk” (119). After briefly working through commonalities that both sides should necessarily agree with, Jenkins lands on the concept of “environmental storytelling.” Leading to a comparison with amusement park designers, Jenkins writes that “game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces” (121). These “virtual playspaces” (122) enable the player to tell a story through the landscape through wandering, a sort of Flânerie-based storytelling. I find this a particularly interesting idea to explore (no pun intended) in Borderlands 3. Though there is a great deal of story in this game, I generally regard it as an open world game defined by side-quests and non-canonical events.

For example, while killing enemies to level up my character, I randomly stumbled what appeared to be several trash bags filled with body parts sitting under a bridge. Though I would learn that these viscera belonged to the murdered family members of a side-character during the quest to avenge them, for the moment this was simply a grim space that “[had] been transformed by… (off-screen) events” (Jenkins, 127). This is the type of storytelling I love about this series: for all the bright colors and darkly humorous dialog the series advertises, there is always the undertone that living in the borderlands lands is a truly terrifying and lawless experience. Though I am certain that my experience with Borderlands 3 will expand as I continue to play it, I have noticed that this installment’s narrative choice to move from the traditional planet with limited biomes to a decentralized intergalactic map has not allowed as much of this atmospheric immersion. We will see if this changes later in my experience, but for now I am happy for the moment I received.

Since I could not capture the moment I was referring to earlier, here is another moment of guided exploration from the original  Borderlands . Again, the visual storytelling is illustrative of how dark this universe can be. ( Source )

Since I could not capture the moment I was referring to earlier, here is another moment of guided exploration from the original Borderlands. Again, the visual storytelling is illustrative of how dark this universe can be. (Source)

To shift gears abruptly, I wanted to address what narrative architecture might mean for a game like Pokémon Go that relies on augmented reality. Pokémon Go fundamentally relies on Juul’s concept of “half-real” rules (167-169); a Pokémon does not exist on a municipal sidewalk until the player’s camera projects a “magic circle” onto the space, but after this point it can be seen, heard, and added to my data profile. Overall, I quite enjoyed this effect in my experience- having a cute character join the narrative architecture of my walk home was a nice treat. However, I want to briefly explore some potentially problematic repercussions of projecting a half-real world onto the cityscape.

When discussing possible disjunctions between rules and fictions, Juul notes that “representation may give the players reasons to make assumptions about the rules that turn out to be false” (177). In the case of AR games, this can mean that players may assume game rules apply to the real world. I ran into an interesting blog post a while ago on the Pokémon Go forums detailing the potential risks of playing in what the poster deems a “dangerous city.” The tone of this post is not pearl-clutching alarmism but rather informative tips to avoid foul play: "I recommend that you familiarise yourself with the all of the areas in your city that have the highest rate of robbery. Listen to the radio, read the news and talk with friends or parents about that.” If this poster has radically different obstacles and rules in their game dictated by the real world, are they playing the same game that I am in Austin? Furthermore, what are the affects of projecting Pokémon into lower socioeconomic spaces and turning these spaces into monetizable gamic architecture? I argue that projecting a cute image into a space into the interest of rendering the space profitable is deeply troubling, and will see if I can explore the issue more in next week’s posting.